Travel: What to eat in Warsaw

Today I’m continuing my exploration of Poland by tasting the food of Warsaw. But first some history.

The area covered by modern Warsaw has been inhabited for at least 1,400 years. The city has had rather a tumultuous history from the Great Northern War of 1702 to occupation and uprising during World War II and a long period of communist rule.

After the Second World War, when the Nazis slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews, they literally demolished the city. In 1945 most of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Soviets proclaimed the Polish People’s Republic and the city was rebuilt in a modern style.

All this means that Warsaw has an amazingly diverse architecture. From the charm and colour of the old town to the squareness and rather grand greyness of the Communist era – those communists certainly built things big!

Widespread anger and unrest hit Poland in the early 1980s with protests over food shortages and the prices of goods and the trade union Solidarity was established. By early 1989 an agreement was made to hold elections and an anti-communist government was established.

Poland entered the European Union in 2004 and is now in a period of prosperity. You can see this in Warsaw’s wide streets, bustling restaurant life and new, shiny financial district. It’s a great city to roam – with lots of green spaces, good shopping and a mind-boggling array of eateries in what is a relatively small area.

To help with the decision making, I decided to start my Polish culinary quest by joining Eat Polska for a food tour. A fabulous way to explore the city as well as tasting plenty of traditional dishes and learning their history. We visited four establishments and tasted a real variety of dishes. There was a good walk between most of the stops which was great as I really did discover more about the city while also walking off some of those calories.

Kaman Lwowska

Our first stop was a cosy, traditional Polish place – the sort of place I could see myself settling down for a lovely long lunch.

I’d seen this dish on several menus already in my short time in Warsaw but hadn’t had the courage to order it. It’s delicious! Bread served with lard and fermented gherkin and a chilled shot of local vodka which we were told to “scull”. This is a match made in heaven – nothing complicated but somehow sublimely tasty with a lovely mix of textures. My mouth’s actually watering remembering it.

Warsaw: lard

Lard and fermented gherkin

Warsaw: vodka

Perfectly chilled local vodka

Warsaw: lard

Spread and ready to eat

There’s a lot of soup enjoyed in Polish cuisine. We tasted the red borscht which is a clear, beautifully sweet beetroot soup served with uszko dumping. It’s traditionally served on Christmas Eve, its vibrant pinkness perfect for a celebration.

We also tasted the cucumber soup – made with grated sour pickled cucumbers and potato and served hot which was unexpected and also delicious.Warsaw: cucumber soup

Cucumber soup…and it’s served warm

Solec 44

Solec 44 is a trendy gastro-pub sort of place in an up-and-coming area of the city. I loved the modern, minimalist interior and the shelves containing huge bottles of pickled everything and a wide selection of board games.

We were there to sample a meat selection. Sausages are huge in Poland – actually, they’re normal size but there’s a massive range of them to try. And very good they all are too. Quality cheeses are more of a recent development and today we tucked into a great charcuterie board. We tried three types of sausage, smoked fatback and four types of cheese. All very tasty, especially the pieprzowka (black pepper sausage).

Warsaw: charcuterie

Gotta love a charcuterie board

Bibenda

Time for a meander back towards the centre of the city and Bibenda which serves a mix of traditional and modern polish dishes. Pork is very popular and served in many, many ways. Today’s tenderloin was cooked with a cinnamon mustard glaze, lemon fennel puree, carrot, coriander, orange zest, cinnamon popcorn and mint powder. The meat was so packed with flavour and all the elements perfectly complemented each other.

Warsaw: pork tenderloin

Exotically inventive pork tenderloin

And then there was this vegetarian dish made of broad beans, zucchini, tomato, onion, garlic, spicy mole sauce, avocado, Korycinski cheese and grilled spring onions. Sort of like an exotic kind of ratatouille topped with loads of creamy avo.

The place also has a fabulous cocktail list and serves a wide range of beers. You could certainly  linger.

Warsaw: vegetarian

An amazing vegetarian selection

Wedel

Wedel is a family business dating back to the 1890s and it sells chocolate in many shapes and forms. There’s literally chocolate in the air. And today we were sampling their legendary bittersweet drinking chocolate. Somewhere between milk chocolate and dark chocolate on the tasting scale, the luscious conception was thick, rich and sweet – one of the most indulgent drinks I’ve ever had. And what a beautiful shop – seriously, I challenge anyone to walk out without buying something.

Warsaw: hot chocolate

Lusciously rich hot chocolate

The Eat Polska Food Tour was a wonderful way to learn more about Polish food – something I had limited knowledge of – and find my bearings in the country’s capital. Our guide Eliza was so knowledgeable – not only about the food but also the complicated history of her country. A really fun and educational way to spend an afternoon. Oh, and tasty, too.

Where else to eat

I loved Warsaw’s Old Town with its colourful ancient buildings, cobbled streets and opportunities for al fresco drinking and dining. The beautiful main square has a couple of restaurants so on our first lunch we went in to Krolewski. I’m guessing this is one of the places all the tourists eat – something of an obvious choice. But we didn’t regret it, the food was lovely and the service great. And I did love sitting in the mains square.

The menu offers all those traditional Polish dishes that you’ve read about including a range of classic soups, duck, pork and beef dishes and those little Polish bundles – pierogi (dumplings). You can even get all of the meats on one plate called a Royal Platter – literally a tower of chops, steaks and sausages. The Poles are certainly somewhat carnivorous.

My first taste of pierogi were these Russian-style dumplings stuffed with cheese, potato and fried onion. Amazingly tasty little bundles. I’m going to have to find somewhere in London to get my pierogi fix.

Warsaw: pierogi

Satisfying pierogi stuffed with potato, onion and cheese

Duck is also a staple and we tucked into the Polish-style roasted duck with apples served in cherry sauce with potatoes and beetroot. I love beetroot but even if you don’t, a trip to Poland will convert you – they know how to do beetroot here. The duck was flavoursome and moist, and the cherry sauce surprisingly zesty, served with perfectly cooked potatoes. A hearty dish for sure. Like a lot of Polish cuisine – you’re not going to go hungry that’s for sure.

Warsaw: duck

Flavoursome duck with cherry sauce and beetroot

Warsaw: steak tartare

Design your own steak tartare

Just across the road from our hotel was a lovely little spot called Bohemia. The perfect choice for a late dinner after our evening tour of the city. Steak tartare crops up on many a Polish menu and as it’s one of my favourite dishes I had to go for it. Love the presentation and the addition of a fresh garlic clove and enjoyed mixing it up to create the right flavour just for me.

There’s plenty of beer to savour and Poland has a flourishing craft beer scene – there are around a hundred breweries in Poland. The three most popular local beers are Zywiec, Okoum and Tyskie. I became partial to a chilled Zywiec. There are plenty of options for beer tasting in the beautiful streets of the Old Town.

Warsaw: beer

Cheers from the Old Town

There are lemonade carts dotted around the city and fresh lemonade is sold all over. They look cute but the lemonade we tried from the cart was a little insipid with the juice of half a lemon, water and a spoonful of sugar. Shop-bought lemonade seemed to have more flavour with extra juice and fresh herbs added. All very refreshing either way.

Lemonade in the park

We also enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast at to Lubie cafe, again in the Old Town. My Local Breakfast included smoked cold meat, cheese, a tasty bowl of ham and egg spread and tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers served with bread rolls. They also had an extensive tea menu and lovely coffee.

A fresh and tasty breakfast with all my favourites

Where to stay

We stayed at the Westin Warsaw. It was situated about a 20-minute walk from the main sights but I do like a bit of a meander, so that suited me. The rooms were spacious and comfortable with good mini bar and tea and coffee facilities. And the service was fantastic with plenty of help organising tours and recommending the best options.

You can find out more about food tours in Warsaw at www.eatpolskacom

Travel: The delights of Alicante

The area around Alicante is said to have been inhabited for over 7000 years. In more recent times it’s become a major tourist destination with serious development in the 1950s and 1960s resulting in large buildings and complexes springing up throughout the city.

This means Alicante is the perfect example of a concrete jungle. High rises dominate the skyline (and not in a particularly attractive way) and on first sight it doesn’t seem like the prettiest of holiday destinations. It would be easy to dismiss the city as place not to visit in Spain. But you’d be wrong. Well, they do say you should never judge a book by its cover and as soon as you start looking a little deeper into the soul of Alicante you’ll be surprised to find many beauties.

While those buildings can’t be unbuilt, a lot of effort has been made to add beauty with the myriad flowers and trees. Jacarandas, bougainvilleas and hibiscus abound (gotta love those exotic names) and there are palm trees everywhere. Of course, as you’re in Spain, the sky is always blue – different colours of blue for different times of day – the sea is warm and clear, the food is wonderful and there’s a warm Spanish welcome. Because this is a truly Spanish city where simple food is perfectly prepared using the best of local ingredients, prices are great value and you’ll need a bit of Spanish to get by.

Alicante’s Playa San Juan

We stayed in the San Juan Beach area. And my first realisation that Alicante wasn’t what it initially seemed was the sight of the stunning beach. I mean really stunning. Huge, with white sand and mountains in the background. And that fabulous Spanish tradition alongside it – the promenade. Lined with restaurants and bars, the beautifully paved area in the shade of palm trees was busy all times of day with families and friends enjoying their daily amble.

Alicante: San Juan Beach

The white sandy beach with blue sea and sky

There are so many restaurants along this stretch of sandy sunniness that it’s hard to choose where to eat. As luck would have it we picked the perfect breakfast spot on our first morning. One of my favourite breakfast treats ever is pan con tomato, lightly toasted bread served with what is basically mashed up tomato and olive oil. It’s amazing how good it tastes. Today’s offering also came with a generous portion of jamon – so that’s even better. And here’s the best thing of all – this delicious breakfast, including a glass of fresh orange juice and a coffee set us back the sum of €1.80 each. No that is not a typo. €3.60 for two filling and deliciously Spanish breakfasts at 100 Montaditos right on the beach. Seriously, does life get better than that? Breakfast certainly doesn’t.

Alicante: desayuno

The best-value breakfast ever, yes ever

Alicante: San Juan promenade

They do know how to do a promenade in Spain

Lunch along the promenade also offered a range of traditional Spanish tapas dishes. Like this Russian salad (ensalada Russa) which crops up on menus everywhere I go in Spain. You can read more about this dish and try out my recipe for it by clicking here. I’ve sampled some different versions recently so think I will be redoing my own recipe soon.

Alicante: Russian salad

The ever-present Russian Salad

Playa San Juan is also the perfect place for sundowners. Especially if you’re a fan of giant gin and tonics like these.

Alicante: gin & tonics

Huge g&ts beachside while pondering our dinner destination

We meandered the streets absorbing the evening sun and the pleasant babble of Spanish voices, checking out menus while we decided where to go for dinner. One of my favourite ways of spending time! Our choice was Los Charros, a charming-looking establishment on a side street up from the beach. And what a good choice it turned out to be. We started off by sharing this delicious concoction of eggs, prawns and mushrooms with a touch of garlic.

Alicante: egg, prawn and mushroom starter

Scrambled eggs with earthy mushrooms and sweet prawns

For mains we decided on lamb and goat chops respectively – simply served grilled with some lovely wild garlic and more accompaniments than we expected, including a salad, crispy fired potatoes and padron peppers and a large dish of tempura-style vegetables. All served with a smile.

Alicante: goat chops

Tasty little chops with a fresh salad

Alicante: crispy potatoes

Love the sweetness of Spanish potatoes and these were beautifully crisp

We sat outside on the lovely terrace – something we always do when we can. I think it comes from living in the Northern hemisphere. Dining alfresco is always a treat. The tapas bar inside was bustling with locals and filled with laughter.

On our second night in Alicante we were highly tempted to go back to Los Charros. But as we were only there for two nights it seemed boring so instead we chose El Mayoral for dinner, which is on the San Juan promenade. The menu was extensive and we were having decision-making hiccups. Until we saw what the couple on the next table were tucking into, a delicious seafood soup. So we ordered the same – langoustines, prawns, mussels, the softest of calamari and fresh hake in a lovely saffron-flavoured broth.

Alicante: seafood soup

Seafood soup to share – the perfect start to dinner

A Spanish classic for mains – roast suckling pig served with perfect chips and slivers of crispy fried onions.

 

Alicante: suckling pig

Love the suckling pig in Spain, they know their pork!

We finished our wine after dinner alongside the beach watching the sky develop through stages of blue until it reached this stunning indigo colour with the last light of the day.

Alicante: indigo sky

Post-dinner drinks under an indigo sky

Touring on Alicante’s tram

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from the comfort and joy of San Juan Beach we decided we had to do some exploring. So we got on the tram heading for the Old Town and the harbour. Such a lovely way to travel and to see more of the city and all for €1.45 for what was about a 35-minute journey. We passed a lot of concrete along the way and emerged into a buzzing metropolis. The main road down from the station, Ramble de Mendoza Lunez, leads down to the beach. If you’re looking for shopping opportunities take a slow walk down as there’s plenty on offer here.

Alicante: the tram

Travelling by tram is such a pleasure

Strolling around Alicante harbour

As you start getting close to the water there’s another palm-lined promenade to stroll along.

Alicante: promenade in town

More promenading opportunities in the shade of palm trees

There’s a sparkling harbour filled with stylish boats – and even a pirate ship.

Alicante: harbour

More shades of blue in Alicante harbour

Lunch in Alicante’s Old Town

After some waterside strolling we headed into the Old Town for lunch. With the feel of ancient Spain and beautiful old buildings to view, there were also plenty of restaurant choices to explore.

Alicante: Old Town

Alfresco restaurants abound in Alicante’s Old Town

Greetings of hola, buenos días lead us to a table at La Taberna San Pascual where we tucked into delightful albondigas (meatballs) and croquettes, accompanied by some delicious Spanish rose.

Alicante: lunch in Old Town

Lunch in shades of pinks and reds

Alicante: La Taberna San Pascual

The charmingly rustic La Taberna San Pascual

We finished off lunch with a charming mini-mug of the local liquor – all complimentary of course. How I love complimentary local liquor.

Alicante: local liquor

Chilled mini drinks to complete a perfect lunch

So that was Alicante, a place can see myself visiting again and again and one I’d definitely recommend for a Spanish fix. Just make sure you see past the concrete.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn San Juan which was a short walk from the promenade and the beach. Though basic, the hotel was comfortable and welcoming and has a lovely pool area for lazy afternoons.

 

 

Exploring and indulging on the Franschhoek Wine Tram

As promised, today we’re hopping on board the Franschhoek Wine Tram. There are so many vineyards in Franschhoek in  South Africa’s Cape Winelands it’s quite a daunting task to pick which ones to visit. So someone clever thought about starting up the Wine Tram to make it easier. There are five routes to choose from and seven or eight vineyards that you can hop off at for each one.

We chose the Red Line, which has eight stops – and you have time to get off at a maximum of five. Clearly there is still some decision making to be done. Anyway, select your route and head for the centre of beautiful Franschhoek to start your adventure. It’s worth getting there a little early for a fabulous coffee at Sacred Ground (how’s that for a great name for a coffee shop). Then wait for the bell to ring to announce the start of your tour and for your guide with the red (or whatever the colour of your tour) flag to appear.

It turns out that the Wine Tram tours are mainly on a bus – well the actual tram only visits two stops which happened to be at the end of our tour. But you won’t be disappointed as it’s a particularly cute bus, resplendent in green and gold. The open sides make for easy picture taking and the informative commentary fills you in about the wine life in Franschhoek.

All aboard the wine bus wine tram

We headed out of central Franschhoek towards our first stop Maison. It’s a beautifully quaint little building with a welcoming verandah and tasting area in front. The restaurant – Kitchen at Maison – which is currently rated the eighth best in the country, overlooks vines and mountains.

The quaintest of cottages greets you

There’s a strict timetable to follow which actually makes life easier. Each segment is organised in periods of an hour – so when you’re dropped off watches are synchronised and the bus is back in exactly an hour. You can of course stay two hours (or three, or however long you want). We found that the hour worked really well. The farms are all used to the system and served us quickly and efficiently. So we were ready to head off to the next stop when the bus arrived.

In the garden at Maison – a bit of natural art?

We decided to skip the next two stops – Eikehof and Leopard’s Leap, though I did get the opportunity to capture this stunning sculpture from the bus. No prizes for guessing which vineyard this was at. As well as all its other great qualities, Franschhoek is like a massive outdoor art gallery!

Look out for the leopard prowling on high

Next stop Chamonix which dates back to 1688. The newly opened restaurant which overlooks the forest at the back. We tucked into the cheese and charcuterie boards because you’ve gotta eat if you’re tasting all that wine. They were beautifully presented and tasty, just what we needed.

A tasty cheese selection to keep us going

A delicious charcuterie platter with local meat and cheeses

A short hop and we were off the bus again at spectacular Dieu Donne. It’s a modern construction, set high up on the slopes of Franschhoek with this spectacular view across the valley.

Dieu Donne’s view is one of the most amazing

The bus meanders through the streets of this historic little town – and it really makes you feel like you want to live there (or perhaps that’s due to the wine?). Beautiful views, quaint cottages and a sense of peace – I could picture myself moving into this house!

Picture perfect cottages line the streets

By now the afternoon was starting to run away from us, time really does fly when you’re having fun. Finally it was time for the best bit – the actual tram. We waited excitedly alongside the track as it trundled up. All aboard and we headed for our final stop – Grande Provence.

It’s on the tram for the last two stops

On arrival at the station there’s a tractor and trailers awaiting you which trundle through the vines and trees to a beautiful destination. Grande Provence oozes class and style and there’s a very warm welcome, too.

Love the Franschhoek modes of transport

It’s over 300 years old and has the most spectacular gardens. Beautiful trees, water features and art everywhere for your pleasure. And the wine is great too. We settled in the shady garden with a chilled bottle of Rose. The perfect last stop to complete our day.

The stylish inside tasting area at Grande Provence

The beautiful trees offer shade for the sculptures

More fabulous Franschhoek art to admire

I loved our afternoon on the Wine Tram. We made new friends and sang with them along the way (wine tasting definitely helps with that!), tasted new wines and enjoyed the beauty of the Franschhoek Valley in style. The Bus/Tram works like clockwork and is certainly a novel way to travel.

Homeward bound after a fabulous Winelands afternoon

The vineyards we visited in conclusion

They were all very different, a mix of historical and modern, varying views, food and wine. My opinion in short.

Maison

Quaint and quirky.

Expensive wine tasting.

Highly regarded restaurant, though we didn’t eat in it this time.

Chamonix

Lovely cheese and charcuterie platters.

Delicious Sauvignon Blanc with lots of citrus notes.

Not much of a view.

Dieu Donne

Spectacular views.

More delicious Sauvignon Blanc.

Grande Provence

The classiest of the lot.

Beautiful gardens, water features and sculptures.

Delicious Rose.

Find out more about the fabulous Wine Tram at winetram.co.za

 

 

 

Where to stay in Vietnam: The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa

Continuing my series of Where to Stay, today we’re in Phan Thiet in Vietnam. Phan Thiet is a coastal city in south-east Vietnam, a four to five hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City airport – sounds long but it’s totally worth it when you get there. It’s the capital of Binh Thuan Province with a population of around 300,000 and is actually only 200km from Ho Chi Minh City. At its centre is a bustling little fishing port and an amazing market.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is outside the centre in the beach resort area of Mui Ne. There’s a long palm-lined stretch of sand with plenty of watersports and a strip of hotels, restaurants and shops alongside it.

The hotel is laid out through beautiful gardens and is built in the style of traditional Vietnamese country houses. Here’s what I loved about our stay there.

The room

We stayed in one of their beach bungalow. A meander down a winding path through lush tropical vegetation takes you to your brightly painted, welcoming home for your stay. Set right on the edge of the beach – a few steps from the sand – the room was light and spacious with an enormous bed, large wardrobe and generous seating area.

Looking back from the beach to the beautiful bungalows

The bed’s made even cosier at night with the mosquito net

The glass doors opened out onto a large patio complete with two amazingly comfortable sun beds and an umbrella. This is where we spent a lot of time reading, sipping wine and just taking in the marvellous view from our verandah.

The seating area and our view towards the sea

There were good tea and coffee-making facilities, including a range of teas and a fridge which was restocked every day with fresh bottles of water and replacements for anything else you may have drunk. So no issues with in-room refreshments then. Other essentials (for me anyway) included a safe, plush bathrobes and towels, lovely bathroom products and great wifi.

The large bed and its crisp white linen

The bathroom

One of the best hotel bathrooms ever…large with a separate toilet, a wonderful corner bath for long bubbly soaks and – best of all – an outside area with a hammock and powerful shower.

Light floods in from the enclosed outdoor shower

How I love an outdoor shower

The views

The joys of waking up every day and opening the curtains to look through palm trees across the beach to the vast South China Sea.

Looking out across the South China Sea…just awesome

And as the sun set every day the little lights along the beach came on turning our beach view into a twinkling, magical land.

Night comes and a magic falls over the beach

I particularly loved the light at sunset

The pools

As well as the warm, inviting sea to swim in there were two pools, never crowded while we were there. Both had waiter service so you could lie back and enjoy lunch or a cocktail in the sun. The infinity pool at the top of the resort is perfect for getting in your lengths.

Looking through the hibiscus to the pool

Chef Hoang and his amazing food

This is a hotel with food in a league of its own with a genius chef. From the vast breakfast buffets to the amazing dinner menu with a selection of Vietnamese and Western dishes, there are plenty of exciting flavours to discover. Chef Hoang is always on hand making sure things are running smoothly when he’s not cooking in the kitchen.

The first couple of breakfasts took some serious decision making. The range of Vietnamese dishes on offer was stupendous – all on top of plenty of pastries, eggs any way you want them and a tropical fruit feast. I soon established my favourites – and tucked into fresh Vietnamese rolls every morning, filled with prawns, vegetables and herbs and dipped into Chef’s delicious, spicy peanut sauce.

Fresh Vietnamese rolls for breakfast, just delightful

A colourful first breakfast course of tropical fruit

We pored over the menu every night carefully choosing different dishes until we’d pretty much gone through it all. We tucked into delightful salads with Chef’s secret dressing, fresh fish and wonderful pork and duck dishes.

The amazing prawn salad in crunchy baskets

On our last night Chef Hoang made us a special dinner. We started with his special prawn salad served on banana leaves in these lovely bamboo bicycles (love the presentation).

Our prawns presented on the cutest of dishes

And for mains he specially selected a grouper for us from the market that morning. It was baked in a tangy sauce and  parcelled into rice papers with herbs, noodles and vegetables added at the table. A real ceremony.

Our special grouper and vegetable parcels

The beach

Okay everyone knows I’m a real beach baby, so I was in complete heaven here. The whole of hotel life is focused around the beach. You eat looking out to sea, open your curtains to the beach, exercise by walking along the beach…and it’s all rather quiet as the beach is private to the hotel.

At the Victoria life centres around the beach

My favourite time of day was sunset, which happens early in Vietnam – around 5pm. The beach became bathed in golden lights and shades of orange and pink.

Another beautiful sunset turns everything golden

The cookery course

We signed up for a food and cooking excursion. Awakening early we headed into the harbour with our guide, Lam and Chef Hoang. The catch of the day was coming in and the negotiations were in full swing as people heckled over prices – the women take delivery of the catch from the men and do all the bargaining.

The bustling harbour in Phan Thiet centre

From there we headed to the colourful market in the centre of town with it’s beautiful piles of tropical fruit, fish galore and every cut of meat you could need. Plus all those random household necessities dotted throughout. On the way home we stopped off at the local fish sauce factory where Lam explained the vast quantities of fish sauce consumed by the Vietnamese – it’s used in so many of their dishes.

On our return to the hotel we headed for our cookery course in the beautiful thatched gazebo on the beach. Chef Hoang and two of his chefs cooked us a delightful lunch which we ate overlooking the beach. Nothing like having three chefs cook you a private lunch! We left armed with a tasty collection of Vietnames recipes, including one for his secret salad dressing. I really must make that soon, it’s fabulous. And no, my lips are sealed.

Chef Hoang and his smiling helpers

Here’s the amazing prawn and banana flower starter they made specially for us. How exotic is that?

Prawn and banana flower with Chef Hoang’s secret dressing

The staff

The service at the Victoria is impeccable. We were so well looked after by everyone, from the front desk, waiters, chefs, masseurs, cleaners and gardeners. There were smiling, happy faces everywhere and nothing was too much trouble.

The spa

We had excellent massages in the open-fronted spa, with sea breezes and crashing waves providing the background to our indulgent treatments. Vietnamese massages are slightly less harsh than my experience of Thai ones, making it a perfectly relaxing experience while also getting rid of all those long-haul-flight induced knots. I also had a lovely manicure – the staff were expert and prices good value.

The gardens

The beach bungalows are sprinkled through the most beautiful and lovingly tended gardens. Perfect green lawns punctuated by our sunny yellow rooms and tropical trees and flowers including three of my absolute favourites: hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani.

Wash your feet off after a walk through the gardens

Live life surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus

The bedtime stories and other special touches

Okay this is a unique one. Every night we returned from dinner to discover cake delights in our little wooden box with a rolled up scroll alongside it – our nightly bedtime story. A truly charming touch and a great way to find out more about Vietnamese folklore.

I so looked forward to my bedtime story every night

Other special touches I loved included the fact that a chilled glass of water was delivered to your bed at the pool or beach as soon as you sat down – why doesn’t every hotel do this?

And the towels were extra large – having been specially made to perfectly cover the cushion on the wonderfully comfortable beach beds.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is the sort of place where you walk around with a smile on your face all day. Its beautiful and relaxing environment is made even more idyllic by the combination of smiley service and wonderful food.

It was a sad day indeed when we had to say goodbye and head off on the next leg of our adventure to Saigon, which you can read about here.

We organised our trip to Vietnam and Thailand with travel experts Eastravel. They are great to deal with and at the planning stage we spent some time discussing where we would visit and stay – with great results. It was a fabulous, well organised trip. You can read more about Vietnam and Thailand soon. Watch this space.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite thing about it? Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

Absorbing the sights and energy of Saigon

I’ve been having a bit of a blog-holiday so apologies for being so quiet. But I’m back now and starting the new year (happy 2017 everyone) with tales of my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand. My first time in Vietnam and I totally fell in love with the country – its people, food and unfolding story.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, although not the capital (that’s Hanoi in the north). In 1976 it was officially renamed Ho Chi Min City after the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It’s still widely called Saigon, though, (especially by the Vietnamese) which it was under French rule when it was the capital of Cochinchina.

The sprawling city has a population of more than 10 million and it’s rapidly growing, too. This makes for a serious hive of activity, hectic traffic, an energetic and hardworking people and, on the downside, somewhat polluted skies which means most citizens wear masks on the streets. There’s something happening around every corner and a friendliness and energetic feel that’s catching.

Here’s what you have to do when in HCMC.

Shop in Ben Thanh Market

In the centre of the city this bustling, partly undercover market sells pretty much anything you could possibly desire. Exotic, fresh vegetables and fruit, live fish and shellfish in all shapes and sizes, clothes, jewellery, souvenirs. The highlight is the towers of great quality, cheap t-shirts to choose from – don’t leave without one – Vietnamese cotton is fabulous.

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The greenness of an exotic vegetable stall

Take to the streets and view the stylish architecture

Saigon is a great city to walk around. The centre is quite small and the best way to see everything is on foot. Notre Dame is the city’s most famous landmark. Built from the 1860s to the 1880s, it’s a reminder of the French influence – all the building materials were brought over from France. Newly married couples and their entourages cluster around the cathedral for wedding pictures – it’s said to bring good luck. It seems that everyone wants their picture taken in front of Notre Dame.

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Notre Dame’s pinkness is iconic Saigon

Saigon is also home to the most beautiful post office I’ve ever seen – designed by French architect Gustav Eiffel, who the Eiffel Tower was named for.

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Post offices don’t get prettier than this

Ho Chi Minh himself takes pride of place in the square in front of the City Hall which was built in the early 20th century – some more of that Parisian flavour – the city is also known as The Paris of the East.

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Ho Chi Minh stands guard over the city

Eat Pho and drink coffee

When in Vietnam…eat Pho. It’s a traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, noodles, herbs and meat. It’s popular street food and it’s eaten any time of day – even for breakfast. Usually served with a plate of herbs on the side so you can add them to suit your taste. A deliciously, satisfying one-pot meal, one that I am certain to be making at home. Oh and there’s plenty of other street food on offer too.

Coffee is the most popular drink in Vietnam and coffee shops abound in the city, so no problem getting your caffeine fix as you explore.

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Traditional pho topped with fresh herbs

Visit the War Remnants Museum

Okay this isn’t the happiest thing you’re going to do in Saigon but I’m big on remembering and learning from history – something humans really aren’t that good at. This museum offers a pictorial record of the brutal Vietnam/American war and its aftermath. Some of the photographs are stunningly heart breaking and while the story is clearly told from a Vietnamese perspective the exhibits provide an almost overwhelming overview of this horrific time in Vietnamese history. Outside you can see the planes and the iconic Huey helicopter that I always associate with Vietnam. I’m too young to remember the war but one of my favourite songs is Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel which is possibly one of the most powerful songs ever written. Worth a listen.

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The Huey helicopters that flew in packs

Chill out at a roof-top bar

Get a different perspective on the city and enjoy a local beer (or a tasty cocktail) at the same time. Our hotel The Majestic (more of which later) has a lovely roof-top bar overlooking the Saigon River. The perfect place to relax and plan over a cold one.

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Cheers from on high in Saigon

Marvel at the traffic and master crossing the road

The traffic is kind of a tourist attraction in its own right. There are millions of motorbikes in Saigon (they say there’s 25 to each car – and there’s no shortage of cars) and they don’t stop at red lights and have no compunction about riding on the pavement. So you need to keep your wits about you wherever you’re walking. I diligently pressed pedestrian crossing buttons to begin with but a red light didn’t stop the traffic. The best way to get across the many-laned roads is to walk at a steady pace without hesitation (when the lights are in your favour obviously) and the traffic will avoid you. Yes, I know I didn’t believe it either, but it seems to work.

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The traffic is a spectacle to behold

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Even at night it never stops

Take a dinner cruise

I do love seeing  a city from the river and the Saigon River is perfect for a cruise. We hopped on board our junk Le Perle de l’Orient at 7pm and settled in at a window table to take in the view. And enjoy a nine-course set menu of delicious Vietnamese food.

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Large, juicy prawns served in a coconut

The modern part of the city’s skyline sparkles in different colours, making for beautiful reflections in the river.

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The Saigon night skyline and its colourful reflections

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A traditional lotus salad with prawns and pork

Where to stay

We stayed at The Majestic Hotel, perfectly placed on the riverside corner of Dong Khoi Street – one of the best shopping streets in the city.

Our room was plush and spacious, overlooking the Saigon River and the bustling streets below. The huge bed was made up with some of the best linen I’ve ever slept in, I was tempted to pack the duvet cover in my suitcase! (No, of course I didn’t.)

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The best linen in the world? Possibly.

The hotel has a lovely rooftop bar/restaurant and the fabulous breakfast spread is served on an open terrace overlooking Saigon life.

Service is welcoming and efficient and the hotel has a relaxed elegance and calm about it – most welcome after the bustling life at street level.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear your recommendations – they’ll give me an excuse to return.

COMING SOON

Read about my stay at the fabulous Victoria Beach Hotel and Spa in the seaside town of Phan Thiet.

Loving the island life: hiking on the Isle of Wight

Today’s journey involves a train and a boat. My two favourite forms of transport so that’s a great  start. We’re heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest island in England which is set in the English Channel four miles off the Hampshire coast.

The ferry from Portsmouth took us across the Solent – a journey of 20 minutes towards island life and a weekend of hiking and relaxing. The island’s been a holiday destination since Victorian times – Queen Victoria built her much-loved summer residence Osborne House here and often came to visit with her family. It was also made popular by poets Swinburne and Tennyson.

In more recent times it’s become famous for hosting music festivals including the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival. In 1970 Jimi Hendrix headlined and the festival attracted around 700,000 people – truly massive for the island with a population of only around 100,000. I can only imagine the chaos.

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Sailing away from Portsmouth and its striking Spinnaker Tower

It’s amazing how crossing water – even on a short journey – makes you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world. A world that its residents are very proud of. And rightly so, as I soon discovered a beautifully peaceful island with plenty of history to absorb and sights to see.

Our final destination, a scenic drive from Ryde to the westerly side of the island, is Freshwater Bay House, a historic seaside Country House dating from the 1790s. It’s set on the cliff top with great views over the bay it’s named after.

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Looking back across the bay to our home for the weekend

Freshwater Bay House is home to HF Holidays, a leading walking and activity holiday company. They’ve been going for over 100 years, so they really know their stuff and we were soon settled in and ready to find out where our hiking boots could take us.

After dinner (more of which later) our guides took us through the walks available for the next day so we could make our choices. There were three options, divided by difficulty, so you could pick the one just right for you – it is your holiday after all.

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The golden sunrise across the bay

An early start and a hearty breakfast and we were ready to set off.

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A fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict

Our first walk (in a group of 10) was guided by Martin. It was a comfortable ramble along wide, grass-cushioned paths, through wooded tracks and winding coastal paths.

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Ready for hiking with my comfy new HiTech boots

Our pace definitely got the blood pumping but I loved that there was always plenty of time to absorb the stunning, ever-changing views of countryside and sea – and to stop and take pictures (or laugh at the cows who posed so beautifully). I must have taken hundreds of them. Here’s a taster of our journey which took us from Freshwater Bay to The Needles and back via the towering Tennyson Monument.

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Charming St Agnes Church is the only thatched church on the island

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Sea views through the silhouetted cows

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Love the signs along the way

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The multicoloured cliffs of Alum Bay

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A perfect view of The Needles through the lookout at The Old Battery

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Perfect forest pathways to amble along

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Shades of blues and greens as we head for home

All that fresh air and energy expended makes me very hungry. So it’s great news that the food at Freshwater Bay House is fantastic. The three courses menu offers dishes made using a lot of local products and with plenty of gluten-free options.

Farming is an important part of Isle of Wight life with plenty of sheep and cows everywhere. And it has a milder climate than the rest of the UK (with more sun) which makes for a longer growing season. Main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic – and there are even two vineyards.

I always look for Isle of Wight tomatoes in the supermarket – they’re so packed with flavour. So I was delighted with this starter. A colourful array of my favourite of fruits, with the yellow one stuffed with a deliciously silken asparagus mousse. Another thing on my “must learn how to make” list.

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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours

The fish dishes were particularly great, including lobster, mussels and sole.

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Local lobster with a mussel broth

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Sweet sole on a bed of risotto

Always partial to a cheese platter, I did my duty and tried the local delights. And took a particular liking to the Gallybagger (I know, weird name for a cheese) which is cheddar-like and extremely tasty.

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A delightful platter of local cheese to finish

On our second day we decided to do a self-guided walk. All it takes is a visit to the Discovery Room to plan your adventure. Once you’ve chosen your route you take the detailed laminated instructions, complete with photographs, detailed directions and suggestions of what to do along the way. With that and the great signage along the way, it’s impossible to get lost. Very impressive. We headed for the nearby town of Yarmouth.

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All pathways are clearly marked and numbers

Enjoying very different scenery from the day before, we meandered through fields heading inland to the stunning Yar Estuary. I loved the myriad birdlife and peace and serenity on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday morning.

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The beautiful Yar Estuary teeming with birdlife

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Finding our way through the forest

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The welcoming sight of boats as we approached the harbour

This was my first visit to the Isle of Wight and it was something of a revelation. More beautiful than I’d imagined with many paths to walk, views to take in and local lore to discuss. We were asked if we were from “the North island”, to which I didn’t know the answer. Turns out the answer’s yes – it’s the rest of the UK – the Isle of Wight is known by locals as the South island.

A fabulous place to get away from it all, live the bucolic lifestyle for a while and recharge the batteries. My new island paradise to escape to.

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Getting back to nature and communing with sheep

I was a guest of HF Holidays on this weekend.

They organise all-in experiences with food and activities included. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious, tasty three-course dinners are made using local ingredients. Every evening you choose your sandwich filling for packed lunch the next day and raid the snack room for extras to keep your energy levels up while you’re walking. The snack room is quite a sight to behold!

Guides are friendly and knowledgable and eat meals with you. It’s very much a communal experience, an easy way to make new friends with plenty of me-time, too.

As well as walking HF Holidays also offer a range of leisure activities and cultural tours around the UK and in Europe.

hfholidays.co.uk